I was in a camp near Bayeux after the Normandy landing. A letter from Wittgenstein telling me he was reading Plato's Theaetetus: «Plato in this dialogue is occupied with the same problems that I am writing about.»
-- M. O'C. Drury,
Whether it is entirely fair to appropriate the work of the late Wittgenstein for the pragmatic tradition, as contemporary writers such as Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom have tried to do, is an interesting and important question. Whether a place can be found in the pragmatic tradition for Plato is a question less frequently raised and may seem bizarre given the the historical dislocalities it involves. But if Wittgenstein could claim to have been working on the same problems as Plato, and if Wittgenstein can be claimed to have been working in the pragmatic tradition, perhaps it is worth the effort of trying to describe the general contours of the problems in the Theaetetus in a way that might have piqued Wittgenstein's interest, and to articulate by this means a philosophical theme which could be seen to stretch from one end of our tradition of discourse to the other. This is what I shall attempt in this paper.
There are two claims about the Theaetetus which I shall need to assume as generally accepted among scholars today which provide the basis for my argument, both of which are neatly expressed by Robin A.H. Waterfield in the interpretive essay which accompanies his translation of the text. «No scholar would today deny,» writes Waterfield in 1987, «that Theaetetus is one of Plato's later compositions ... and indeed belongs to a period when [he] was having doubts about some of his earlier ideas and assumptions.» (1987, p. 132) Despite the consensus that it is a later work, the Theaetetus shares with virtually all of the early, Socratic dialogues a sort of ceremonial throwing up of the hands at the end with the dull acknowledgement that no positive result has been achieved. Here is the closing exchange between Socrates and Theaetetus (210a8 - b12):
SOCRATES: Well, are we still pregnant? Is anything relevant to knowledge still causing us pain, my friend, or have we given birth to anything?
The interlocutors claim to have reached no other result than to realize how little they really know about the topic they were talking about, and it seems odd that Plato, in a late dialogue, would revert back to the aporetic mood of the earlier ones. But it is highly significant, in connection with the second of Waterfield's claims about Plato having second thoughts about the Forms, that there is no mention anywhere in Theaetetus of the Forms, the quintessential platonic doctrine which provides the center of gravity for so much of what is taken to be Plato's settled position on epistemological and metaphysical issues generally. Now, a facile, but not implausible reading of the dialogue would urge us to put these two features of the dialogue down next to each other and draw the conclusion which is then only a short step away: it is precisely because there is no mention of the Forms that Socrates and his friends must reach their inconclusive, aporetic result, and it is precisely to reinforce the centrality of the Forms in his theory of knowledge that Plato leaves Socrates and Theaetetus in the lurch once more.
I think we can do better than this. Let us accept the authority of Waterfield and suppose for the sake of argument that the Theaetetus is indeed a later composition and the lack of any mention of the Forms is indicative of Plato's own misgivings about the whole Theory of Forms. On these terms and conditions, I think it is possible to reach a much less aporetic result and a far more constructive set of claims concerning Plato's thoughts on the nature of knowledge. I propose a reading of the dialogue in which Plato can be seen to be developing an alternative line of approach to the question of knowledge. I shall argue that various features of this approach bear a striking resemblance to a contemporary school of thought loosely affiliated under the term «pragmatism» and associated with the work of such prominent contemporary philosophers as Robert Brandom, Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas. I also find a strong thematic resonance between the results obtained from this alternative reading of the Theaetetus and prominent features in the work of Wittgenstein. I'll build my case for a pragmatic reading of the dialogue by showing the affinity with some claims of Wittgenstein as interpreted by Brandom. These lines of affinity could be extended to include features of the work of Rorty and Habermas but that is work for another day.
The first two thirds of the dialogue is given over to a discussion of Theaetetus's first attempted definition of knowledge, that knowledge is perception. Socrates praises Theaetetus for his boldness in asserting his best opinion, but he is worried that this thesis, simple though it is to state, is really an expression of a whole vast theoretical position that it will take some trouble to articulate. In order to contextualize this thesis in its broader theoretical setting, Socrates enters into a long discussion of what he takes to be the metaphysical background against which the claim can be made proper sense of. Socrates achieves this broader theoretical perspective by combining the doctrine of Heraclitus -- that everything is flux -- with the doctrine of Protagoras -- that man is the measure of all things. This conflation of doctrines is famously controversial, and it is a fair and important question to ask whether the argument which ultimately defeats the «identity thesis» (that knowledge and perception are the same thing) would go through if we were more careful than Socrates is to separate the distinctively Heraclitean from the Protagorean claims. The reason for his running the two together is perhaps not hard to specify. Protagoras offers a theory about the nature of human understanding and knowledge, and it is essentially Protagoras' theory of knowledge that Theaetetus introduces; in order for that theory to be fully intelligible, we should also need some account of the sort of world we are living in so that we can say what it is we have knowledge of, and how that world calls forth or instigates the peculiar form of knowledge we humans are subject to. Heraclitus provides this second theoretical desideratum. The two parts of the account work beautifully together to provide something like a totalizing theory about what knowledge is (perception) in the context of a world of flux (that which is to be known).
Rather than concentrate on the argument which Socrates pursues to show that the identity thesis is mistaken, I would like to highlight what may appear to be a minor complaint voiced by Socrates against the more comprehensive theory that we get when we run Heraclitus and Protagoras together as Socrates does. It would be a minor complaint except that Socrates returns to it several times in the discussion, and frequently enough to suggest that Plato intends us to take it more seriously than the sometimes flippant, sometimes ironic tone would otherwise warrant. I am talking about the frequent mention of the language we use in common life, the language we use in casual conversation or in the marketplace; and the language we must unavoidably invoke in order to get a philosophical discussion of knowledge off the ground in the first place. Socrates points out over and again, that if Protagoras is right in his ideas about knowledge, then ordinary speech is grossly inadequate to the task of expressing or capturing knowledge. After explaining how Protagoras would account for our perception of things which are large or white or warm, Socrates says (154b) that «everyday speech, my friend, carelessly uses words which, from the Protagorean viewpoint and others which approximate to it, are extraordinarily absurd.» A little later he claims that if Heraclitus is right then «the verb `to be' should be deleted from all contexts, despite the fact that habit and ignorance often force us to employ it, and did so even in our recent discussion.» (157b) Socrates puts into the very mouth of Protagoras, in the famous speech he presents on the great sophist's behalf, the claim that the «habitual use of words and expressions ... are the means by which most people confuse one another in all sorts of ways, because they can be manipulated at will.» (168b) And reverting back to the Heracliteans he says (183b) that «those who hold this theory need to set up another language since at present they don't have expressions which fit the theory, except `not like this either'.»
Leaving aside the question of how appropriate it is to combine the Heraclitean metaphysics with the Protagorean epistemology, or whether the successful attack upon the latter would be effective if the former elements were excised from the theory, what seems clear is that either theory separately, or both of them combined produce a result which conflicts with our ordinary way of talking. We have nouns which help us to identify perduring objects in space; predicate terms which enable us to impute essential and accidental properties to such objects. And we get on pretty well with the world and with one another by invoking the ordinary words we inherited and learned how to use at our mother's knee, quite bereft of the benefits of abstruse philosophical theory. What the discussion of Heraclitus and Protagoras puts before us is the possibility that the language and parlance of common life is wholly mistaken in the representations of the world which it makes available to us. The combined theory, if correct, would require a wholesale revision of ordinary language, a sort of linguistic legislative omnibus bill that would purge, innovate, twist and leverage our vocabularies into a better fit with the world as it is disclosed to us through the more accurate lens of philosophical theory. On my alternative reading of the Theaetetus in which this seemingly minor complaint is brought into the foreground, we may interpret Plato as raising the question whether any such global revision of ordinary language is even conceivable, and, by extension, as testing the possibility that ordinary language is basically alright just as it is, and that it provides the unavoidable starting point for any inquiry into the nature of knowledge. There is, at any rate, something seriously wrong with any theory of knowledge that would require us to abjure the language we toss around between ourselves in our comings and goings in the affairs of daily life. Surely we make mistakes in our quotidian dealings with one another, but can we be wholly mistaken?
The identity thesis is defeated, however, on altogether different grounds which lie to the side of our present concerns (they are normative grounds, and a separate case could be constructed to account for the force of Socrates' argument which would reinforce the pragmatic reading of the dialogue I am attempting here). A second, very important segment of the dialogue follows hard upon the collapse of the identity thesis in which the linguistic issues are taken an important step further. What the foregoing discussion raises is the possibility that the world could be, in its reality, altogether different from the way we represent it in our language. Each one of us believes any number of distinct things about the world -- that today is Thursday, that the earth revolves around the sun, and that the sun will rise tomorrow -- and most of these beliefs, at least the ones we have occasion to make explicit to ourselves, are available to us in the form of sentences in the language we speak. But if, as the Heraclitean/ Protagorean theory seems to imply, our language is systematically and globally distorting of the truth about the world, then all the beliefs we entertain in the terms of that language are also distorted, and probably wrong. This next segment of the dialogue is devoted to just this topic -- the possibility of false belief -- and Socrates confesses that it is a topic which has puzzled him for a long time. In working through this socratic puzzlement, Plato may be seen to be testing an epistemological hypothesis, exploring a line of approach to the question of knowledge that is very different from the the one which issues in his Theory of Forms during his middle period. It is also a line of approach that has much in common with what is discussed by recent authors under the rubric of formal pragmatics. The contemporary pragmatists that I have in mind are Robert Brandom and Jurgen Habermas, but I'll confine my attention to Brandom's brand of pragmatism, about which, more in a moment.
At the heart of Socrates' bewilderment, in his initial expression of it, there lies an equivocation between two different ways of talking about beliefs. In the argument which plays out between 187e and 189c, the objects of belief are described as both «the way things are,» and «items of knowledge,» or, as we might put it, the facts out there in the world and the propositions we use to express them. Now, in order for the argument to go down the track it does and reach the conclusion that «it is not possible to believe what is not, either about anything which is or in any absolute sense,» and that therefore «false belief is different from believing what is not,» we need to ascribe the same form of «being» to both the «things that are» -- that is, objects in the world, the facts which they constitute -- and the «items of knowledge» which are the objects of our beliefs -- the propositions in which the facts are expressed. The proposition itself has to be something in order to be an object of belief. Owing to the equivocation between facts and propositions, it appears impossible to say that there could be propositions to which no facts correspond, or propositions which represented non-being. The question, «How can one believe what is not?» is the question, «How can one have nothing (non-being) as an object of belief?» When I believe something false, surely there is some object before my mind. So how can that something not-be, that is, be false?
The assumption which guides the first leg of the argument is «for each and every item, that it is either known or not known.» The problem which the argument discloses arises through our «platonizing» of propositional contents, imputing to propositions themselves a form of being which is the same as the being of ordinary objects or facts. The assumption that every item is either known or not known posits a set of «items», some of which are known, some of which are unknown, but all of which have being. This assumption is shown in very short order to lead to unsatisfactory results, and Socrates proposes to replace the assumption with another one, to «conduct the inquiry not on the basis of what is known and unknown, but on the basis of what is and what is not.» This is progress, or at least an open possibility because we here resolve the conflation of ontological and epistemological posits in favor of an unequivocally ontological way of putting things. But even this won't work because it requires us to say that false belief occurs «when someone thinks and what he thinks is not true.» (188e1) Even if we grant the reality of the proposition one holds before one's mind in a state of belief, making sense of false belief still engenders the gap between thinking a thought which «is» (in the ontological sense) and thinking a thought which «is not true.» What someone thinks -- the thought or belief or proposition, whatever you want to call it -- has being, but this account of false belief requires us to attach the property of falsity to an existent entity. But truth and falsity are not ontological properties at all: we cannot speak of true being or false being. So, putting our feet firmly on the side of ontology will not allow us to make sense of false belief because falsity cannot be given an ontological rendering.
This is no trifling matter for Plato. The Theory of Forms posits a realm of being precisely for the sake of giving an account of genuine knowledge -- as opposed to the lesser grades of cognition like understanding and imagination and perception. In his middle period, Plato resolves the epistemological question by moving quite deliberately onto ontological grounds. The Forms are real -- more real than the things we can perceive with our senses -- and knowledge consists in the mind's putting itself in contact with these entities (to use a deliberately vague locution). In a series of dialogues from Meno to Sophist to Parmenides, Plato raises a whole range of problems which the Theory of Forms must address if it is to be fully satisfactory and prevail against the skeptical and relativistic position of the sophists -- people like Protagoras and Gorgias and Thrasymachus and Callicles -- whom Plato regarded as a desperate threat to the viability of the Athenian polity. Many of the problems associated with the Theory of Forms come to this: as long as there is a gulf between human cognitive capacities -- and language as an essential feature of those capacites -- on the one hand, and the reality of the world on the other -- whose ontological status is utterly indifferent to language; as long as there is a gulf between the domain of truth and the domain of being, there will remain the possibility that our language simply does not get us over to reality, that it in fact constitutes an unbridgeable gap, and that knowledge is impossible. This is not a conclusion that Plato could countenance. Perhaps by the time of his writing the Theaetetus -- and again assuming that it is indeed one of his later works -- Plato was ready to entertain a different approach to the question of knowledge, an approach which circumvents the ontological issues altogether and goes, rather, to the heart of the matter: the question of language.
Notice what happens next in the dialogue. Notice, in particular, the subtle shift of terminology which occurs at 189e - 190a. Thinking is described here as a discussion that the mind has with itself, and a belief is called «a statement, but one which is not made aloud and to someone else, but in silence to oneself.» Something vitally important has happened here. The question of knowledge had hitherto taken the form of a relation that could be expressed in various ways: between the mind and the forms; between «items of knowledge» and «the things that are», between thoughts or beliefs and the world. The question of knowledge is posed here in terms of a relationship between a speaker and an auditor -- both of whom in this preliminary redescription of the nature of thought happen to be the same person. Rather than testing for the truth of our beliefs by holding them up to the world, and thereby requiring us to compare one thing which is inherently linguistic in nature with something else which is inherently non-linguistic in nature, we may test for the truth of a belief, now described as a statement one makes to oneself, by placing it within the context of the other beliefs we hold, the other statements we are prepared to assert -- to ourselves or to others. Knowledge does not consist in the mind's taking possession of something external to itself, and the mark of truth is not the correspondence of a belief to a fact but the consistency of one statement with a collection of other statements. Socrates asks Theaetetus (190c) «Do you think that anyone, sane or insane, seriously says to himself and tries against the odds to convince himself that what is a cow is a horse and that what is two is one?» (Emphasis added.) No, he continues, «on the assumption that believing is making an internal statement, no one whose mind has a grasp on both of two things, and who therefore makes statements -- that is, has beliefs -- about both, could state and believe that what is different is different.» The impossibility of believing that a horse is a cow has nothing to do with the fact that the inherent properties of the one are ontologically incompatible with the inherent properties of the other; the point is that you cannot say that a horse is a cow, either to yourself in the private inner dialogue of thought or to anyone else in public discourse because to do so would be to violate the protocols of speech, contradict the way we do, as a matter of fact, use these words in the parlance of common life. Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates the recurrent complaint that the abstruse theories of Heraclitus and Protagoras do violence to our ordinary ways of talking; he seems now to be flirting with the possibility that the ordinary ways of talking have a certain authority and firmness about them and may serve as a sort of testing grounds for the tenability of any given statement that one has come to hold as a belief. I must reject as false any statement which is inconsistent with other statements to which I am already committed or with statements that other people may be able to convince me I should be committed to. The internal logic of our language -- or rather the common life speech practices that we all fully well know how to engage -- provides all the criterion we should ever need to gauge the veracity of our beliefs. A false belief might then be characterized as a statement I had had occasion to assert to myself provisionally but one which, unbeknownst to me prior to my testing the statement in thought or in discourse with others, was inconsistent with other statements to which I was more deeply committed.
This interpretation is compatible, indeed supportive, of what Socrates goes on to say a little later in the dialogue, at a point where he and Theaetetus feel compelled to acknowledge their failure to get through to an adequate statement of what false belief consists in. But haven't I just said what a false belief would be on the assumptions that Socrates has given us to work with? Not quite. All we've got at this point is an indication of the method we should have to deploy in order to test the veridicality of any of our beliefs. We cannot determine which of our beliefs are false one-by-one, or simply by inspection because falsity is not a quality a belief has all by itself. The falsity is only something that comes out in the process of discussion, as part of an activity that people engage in, either individually or in groups. What Socrates says later on in the dialogue is this: «The fact is that a satisfactory understanding of knowledge is prior to the possibility of knowing about false belief.» (200d) What I should like to suggest now is that Plato has in fact given us that «satisfactory understanding of knowledge,» but not in the form that we may have expected to find it, given all the talk about «definitions of knowledge» in the early going of the dialogue, and all the labored efforts by the droves of philosophers in our own day to identify Plato's «theory of knowledge.» Plato does not give us a theory of knowledge, he gives us a method for its pursuit; he does not say what knowledge is, he shows us how it may be attained. The dialogue itself is an illustration of the method, an argument by exemplification. At the end of the dialogue, Socrates and Theaetetus concede that they have not reached any acceptable characterization of knowledge, but clearly they have learned something. And that, as Socrates says, is itself a «handsome reward.» (187c)
Putting the matter as I have, claiming that Plato does not say, but only shows us what knowledge -- or at least the pursuit of it -- consists in, is intended to resonate with the language of Wittgenstein's great Tractatus. One of the most important teachings of that work is that we cannot explicitly say or articulate wherein consists the power and authority of the logic which structures our language, we can only show it in the use we make of that language. We cannot expect a fully explicit theoretical statement of the nature and workings of logic because we cannot use the language which presupposes and is built upon a consolidated logical superstructure to represent in linguistic terms the very nature and design of that superstructure. In a sort of adumbration of Gödel, Wittgenstein maintains that any such logical theory would be either incomplete or self-referentially incoherent. Plato seems to be hovering in the same general vicinity with his claim, in the Theaetetus, that we should have to have some understanding of what knowledge is before we could even undertake an inquiry into the nature of knowledge or, more explicitly, that we should need to have a «satisfactory understanding of knowledge» before we can construct an account of what false belief is. And the two books have a similar paradoxical ending: Socrates and Theaetetus conclude that they do not know what knowledge is, but they have learned something worthwhile along the way to finding out even that much; Wittgenstein tells us that he has not really given the reader a clear statement of what logic is or what it does, but anyone who has followed his meaning will have got the message anyway, and can toss the ladder away.
My intention here, however, is not simply to point out interesting similarities between the claims of these two great thinkers, but to try and say something interesting about the nature of knowledge itself. It is actually Plato who has, I think, said something intensely interesting about the nature of knowledge. But I have advertised an intention to show the transition from platonism to pragmatism. That Plato has moved away from platonism is at least suggested in the lack of any mention of the Forms in Theaetetus, and, I hope, in the significance I have imputed to that lack in the foregoing discussion. But where is the pragmatism in any of this?
Let me note, first of all, that a charge of platonism is frequently alleged against the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, and also against Wittgenstein's inspiration for that work, Frege. In the case of the early Wittgenstein, the platonism consists in the claim that the logical structure of our language which manifests itself in our talk is just sort of there, and is, in some unspecified, and perhaps unspecifiable sense, real. The same transition that reveals itself when we read the Theaetetus as one of Plato's later works in relation to his more dogmatic middle period would provide a nice template for describing Wittgenstein's development from his own early work to the later. That is a topic for another day. But in order to characterize the end point of the emerging trajectory as, in some sense of the word, «pragmatic,» let me defer once more to the authority of people who have thought long and hard about these topics, and who claim, and argue at length, that Wittgenstein's later position may be described in decidedly pragmatic terms. Richard Rorty and Robert Brandom have both claimed the late Wittgenstein for the pragmatic tradition, and have teased out certain aspects of his work to incorporate into their own, more clearly defined pragmatic positions. I shall draw on several aspects of Brandom's position, as laid out in his important book, Making it explicit (1994), to sketch out one conception of pragmatism that is current today, the one that I think can be seen lurking in the Theaetetus according to the reading that I recommend. Brandom constructs this conception of pragmatism on the basis of several doctrines and arguments he draws from the late Wittgenstein.
To arrive at his own understanding of Wittgenstein, Brandom presents an extended analysis of the argument of Saul Kripke in the latter's by now classic study of «Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.» According to Brandom's Kripke, Wittgenstein's discussion of rules in relation to our everyday linguistic practices leads us to a dilemma: in our attempt to show how our practices are rule-governed we are either driven into an infinite regress -- we need not only rules to structure our moves in the language game, but rules to show us how the rules are to be applied, and so on up -- or forced to construe the rules so loosely as to permit virtually any move in the game to count as complying with them. On either horn of the dilemma there is no good way to show how the rules govern the behavior. Kripke is pleased to settle for a «skeptical» resolution of the problem: there is no way to know, in his famous example of the mathematical operator «quus,» whether a given individual is applying the rules we would all accept as the ones which govern arithmetic or some bizarre permutation on those rules whose bizarreness is concealed only by the fact that the individual seems to get the same results we do when we apply the rule «plus.» Reading Wittgenstein through this Kripkean lens, Brandom draws the conclusion that the practices of everyday life -- including both arithmetic and ordinary conversational practice -- have a certain intuitive clarity and authority about them which stand in no need of validation by our teasing out the rules which govern them. We can, to be sure, articulate and «make explicit» to ourselves the general forms and the rules which are implicit in our discursive practices, forms like the conditional statement and rules like modus ponens. The mistake is only in thinking that these general forms and rules are somehow prior to, or enjoy a privileged status over the practices themselves. No, the practice is there first, practice has precedence over logic. If we try to think of logic, or mathematics as revealing of a rational structure which is simply «there», a structure possessed of some kind of ontological reality to which our thought, and our language and our knowledge must be made to conform, we are well on our way to committing the same sort of metaphysical, platonizing excess which Plato may, in the Theaetetus, have had occasion to regret in his own earlier work.
This, Brandom argues, is the proper way to understand Wittgenstein's teaching in the Investigations, and, I would add, it is an interpretation which is reinforced by what Wittgenstein says in On Certainty. Sooner or later our attempts at ever more basic explanations come to an end; somewhere, as Wittgenstein says, «our spade is turned.» Somewhere we just have to say: this we understand well enough to get on with, this we may use as our beginning point for further explanations if we will. We have a pretty sure grip on how to use the word «knowledge» in our every day comings and goings, even if we cannot give a theoretically satisfactory account of what it is. So much the worse for theory. We are perfectly justified in taking our linguistic practices as a starting point in our philosophical inquiries, and accepting their normal, effective operation as explanatorily basic.
This claim constitutes one of the most important features of the new pragmatism, and it is also, I submit, an important part of the argumentative strategy which is trying to emerge in the course of Socrates' discussion with Theaetetus. Rather than look for explanatory closure in any metaphysical or transcendental domains, we ought to content ourselves with explanations which incorporate and legitimate the practices which everyone understands well enough, and which only a philosopher or a madman would suggest are so seriously in disrepair as to make them unsuitable for service. The theories of Heraclitus and Protagoras throw our ordinary language into confusion, Socrates says, and to accept their theories would require us to revise our normal ways of talking. But, Socrates also seems to suggest, you, Heraclitus and Protagoras, have given us no independent grounds for thinking that your theories are so much to be preferred as to warrant the massive effort that would be required to wrangle our linguistic practices into line with them. What Brandom imputes to the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations is a compelling argument which demonstrates that no such independent grounds can ever be found. Socrates, and Wittgenstein, are calling us back from the etherial heights of philosophical cloud-cuckooland and inviting us to begin our philosophical inquiries at a point where we may expect to get real traction with problems that actually matter to us, and within a context which precludes our going off the rails and making all kinds of wild and exaggerated claims that only make us look ridiculous. This contempt for the excesses of metaphysical speculation and disdain for the pretensions of theory and its presumption to instruct us about how we ought to talk, is what gives the scoring rasp to Socrates' ironic and sarcastic tone of voice in the Theaetetus. It also motivates the painstaking and fiercely analytical researches of Wittgenstein in the Investigations. And the recommendation that we come back down to earth and reinstitute philosophy as an instrument for practical research, that we eschew and resist the temptations and blandishments of metaphysical abstraction, is at the heart of the new pragmatism as elaborated by Brandom.